Something HUGE has been happening at the Penn Museum in one of seven American Section storerooms. For the past two years, downstairs in the sub-basement (the basement below the basement), in a room about the size of a football field, two small teams of Inventory Assistants have been moving carefully from shelf to shelf, checking in on 90,319 ancient tools and ceramic vessels. Working daily with the Registrar’s Office, and, in particular, the Museum’s Database Administrator Danni Peters, these Inventory Assistants have been undertaking a significant pilot project for the upcoming Museum-wide Collections Inventory (to be described in a future blog post).
As each object is identified, its current location is updated on the Museum’s EMu collections database, and a bright green tag indicates the team has seen it and is moving on. For many this could be a kind of mind-numbing experience, but for Daniel LoMastro, Laura Hazeltine, Ashley Scott, Yin Liu, and Jacob Bridy, this is definitely not the case. As we all know, appreciation of life experience is in the eye of the beholder, and in that vein these inventory gurus claim to find a kind of zen in the storeroom, where organizing, counting, and problem solving related to ancient artifacts is incredibly satisfying. Dedicated, intellectually curious, and efficient, they are champions at deciphering one-hundred-year old scrawl – obscured numbers, illegible numbers, flipped numbers – you name it, they’ve seen it, worked through it, and solved the puzzle.
For many of us in the museum field this is what it means to put your time in the trenches. Perhaps not particularly glamorous, this is the bread and butter of collections work, keeping track of vast stores of objects that document human history. Spending time with such objects is what makes most of us excited about our work. Yet spending two years in the cavernous sub-basement is truly a commitment. With no windows, two levels below ground in a 90 year-old building, there are all kinds of “strange noises, random gurgles, toilets flushing, and sump-pumps pounding.” The teams keep their focus by listening to music – Hans Zimmer, Queen, Blink 182. Once in a great while, just to fill the blank spots as they are sorting, they stream an old TV show as background noise, The X-Files or Star Trek: The Next Generation.
This is a team effort and all of us in the American Section extend a huge thank you to our Administration for its commitment to collections stewardship as a mainstay of the Museum’s Mission, and to our colleagues from the Registrar’s Office and EMu Database Team who have helped plan, implement, and oversee the re-inventory effort. This is an important accomplishment. And we are indebted to Daniel, Laura, Ashley, Yin, and Jacob for their patience, skillful commitment, and enthusiasm – there is no doubt that this experience is helping to shape them into talented leaders of tomorrow’s museums.